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Paul Ryan: Wisconsin roots, Washington clout

Saturday - 8/18/2012, 3:13pm  ET

AP National Writer

(AP) - Since his youth, Paul Ryan has shown a knack for eliciting mixed feelings.

Classmates at Joseph A. Craig High School in Janesville, Wis., bestowed on him the dubious title of "Biggest Brown-Noser." They also elected him class president and anointed him prom king.

During his rapid political ascent, to become chief architect of love-it or hate-it Republican budget policy, many of his Democratic adversaries have coupled criticism of his ideology with praise for his cordiality, diligence and thoughtfulness.

"I've known Paul Ryan for a long time. He's a serious guy," said Wisconsin state Sen. Tim Cullen, a moderate Democrat who shares constituents with Ryan. "I think the American people need more serious people in Washington and fewer bomb-throwers."

In the days since Mitt Romney selected Ryan for the vice presidential slot on the Republican ticket, the 42-year-old congressman's biography has become instant folklore. Lifelong resident of a little city in the heartland. Embracing new responsibilities as a teenager after the sudden death of his father. Devoted husband and father, devout Roman Catholic, avid deer hunter/fisherman/fitness buff.

Scott Angus, longtime editor of the Janesville Gazette, said Ryan's political views are divisive even in his home town. But Angus has been disabusing out-of-town reporters of the notion that they might uncover some skeletons in Ryan's personal life.

"The whole image of an all-American boy from an all-American city _ it's all true," Angus said. "He really is as genuine as you're going to find."

Yet Janesville, where Ryan still lives in the upscale neighborhood where he was born, is only part of his story.

Washington, D.C., lured him starting back in college, when he served as a lowly congressional intern, sorting mail and asking precocious policy questions.

The nation's capital has never eased its hold on him since then. There were further congressional staff jobs, a stint with a conservative think tank and, since his first election in 1998, seven terms as a congressman representing southern Wisconsin's 1st District.

Now, he's embraced the chance to be near the pinnacle of inside-the-Beltway power.

In June, when he was rumored to be high on Romney's list of possible running mates, he told The Associated Press he never intended to become a "permanent fixture" in Washington. But he also said he'd become "enthralled with public service" and the competitive rush of Capitol Hill policy battles.

"I really don't have tremendous political ambition. I have policy ambition," he said.

As House Budget Committee chairman, Ryan is the mastermind of divisive GOP budget plans that would curb the growth of Medicare, slash safety-net programs for the poor and extend all Bush-era tax cuts, including those for the rich. The aim, Ryan says, is to get the nation's fiscal house in order before the deficit spins out of control.

Ryan is also one of the most successful fundraisers in Congress and a favorite of several big-spending political action committees. Within days of his selection by Romney, he made time for a private meeting in Las Vegas with casino mogul and GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.

"Paul talks about being from Janesville, but he's an absolute product of Capitol Hill," said state Sen. Joe Erpenbach.


Ryan's story begins in Janesville. The son of a well-to-do attorney, Ryan is the youngest of four children. He was an altar boy and attended Catholic school before moving on to Craig for high school.

He faced tragedy head-on at 16 when, after arising one morning at home, he discovered his father dead of a heart attack.

His older brother, Tobin, said the event became a "catalyst" for Paul. "It could have been a period where he stuck his head under a pillow and didn't want to come out," he said. "Instead he developed and matured in ways you couldn't imagine."

With his older siblings no longer at home, and his mother commuting to out-of-town college courses, Ryan became a principal caregiver for his grandmother, who had Alzheimer's disease.

"Paul also takes a job at McDonald's, excels at school, becomes class president," Tobin recalled. "He really took responsibility."

Ryan himself has not spoken much in public about his father's death. In a New Yorker interview, he said, "I was like, `What is the meaning?' I just did lots of reading, lots of introspection."

At high school, Ryan won the race for class president on a ticket together with his cousin, Adam Ryan, when both were juniors. When they graduated the following year, Adam was named in the yearbook as "Most Likely to Succeed," while Paul was "Biggest Brown-Noser."

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